In this summer of lies, Sen. Daniel Inouye referred to Nuremberg in his final remarks to Oliver North. American lawyers, he said, had proposed that a provision of the Uniform Code of Military Justice be applied at Nuremberg. That provision was that members of the military have an obligation to disobey unlawful orders.
At this point, Brendan Sullivan Jr., North's lawyer and stage manager, interrupted Inouye to say that the Nuremberg reference was "personally and professionally distasteful." Inouye hit a nerve -- raw and exposed -- that couldn't be lawyered away by a hand-cupped whisper to North. Instead, the hyper Sullivan shouted at the senator.
Inouye's linking judgment of the lieutenant colonel's actions with Nuremberg rules supplies a context that helps explain how North can admit he lied to Congress, his superiors and the public and yet posture unapologetically as a noble warrior serving God and country. North stressed that in all cases he was the good soldier carrying out orders. His testimony was a long recital of how he kept his vow of obedience, like a fervent novice in a religious order.
In "Lying in Politics," Hannah Arendt, writing in 1969, describes the kind of lying that appeals to model subordinates like North. Their deception "never comes into conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to make it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared."
In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," an earlier work that also examined the lying mind, Arendt describes how the Nazi, hung in 1961 for transporting Jews to extermination camps, had no trouble admitting the wrongness of his acts. But lying was something else. How could it be wrong if it was both common and necessary? It was the same for Oliver North: "I want you to know lying does not come easy to me ... But I think we all had to weigh in the balance the difference between lives and lies. I had to do that on a number of occasions in both these operations, and it is not an easy thing to do."
However dissimilar Adolf Eichmann and Oliver North were in their service to superiors, they performed their duties with the same habit of mind. Both were loyalists following orders. Both implicated others. Both found it surprising that their lies were later judged harshly. Arendt explains that the "German society of 80 million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means. The same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann's mentality."
The Iran-contra record is one of self-deceptions, lies and stupidity. A president says "we did not -- repeat, did not -- trade weapons or anything else for hostages" after having signed an order to do the opposite. Lies were told about the contras, that they were men of such honor that they were the equal of Jefferson and Madison.
Eichmann had a role in the worst recorded slaughter in history, North a role in what history will likely record as another Reagan screw-up. But the fanaticism of Eichmann's leaders against Jews is not much different, in intention, than that which North's leaders express against communists. Unlawful commands were given and followed.
North's audacity -- fed by Sullivan's deception of portraying his client as a victim of Congress when in fact the administration began criminal investigations -- was to claim that since he believed lives to be at stake he had an obligation to lie. In "Lies for the Public Good," a chapter in "Lying," Sissela Bok tells of public officials for whom "lying is excusable when undertaken for 'noble' ends by those trained to discern these purposes."
North is in the mold. The taste may not be pleasant to his moralizing lawyer. Sullivan's sentiments, as Inouye ruled, don't matter -- not as long as the consequences of North's lies are still being felt on lives he doesn't value in places like Nicaragua.